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Economic development successes; need for more housing highlight State of the Cities gathering

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BRISTOL, Va. – Mayors of both Bristols touted recent economic development gains, addressed a regional housing shortage and highlighted other achievements Wednesday during the 10th annual State of the Cities event.

About 200 people filled the Bristol Train Station for a midday event hosted by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. The program also included comments from federal and state lawmakers and representatives of the Bristol Casino, Future Home of Hard Rock and the Tennessee Hills Distillery project.

“We’ve been opening up new businesses and those businesses have been hiring workers,” Farnum said of the year just past. He began his list with the first casino to open in Virginia and its current workforce of 600, hired this spring and summer.

“They’ve had tens of thousands of visitors already and visitors from 45 different states.  It’s incredible to see the old Bristol Mall property brought back to life on the western end of our city and we are excited about more growth there around the property as well,” Farnum said. “Hard Rock has already been such an incredible partner here in Bristol, and I can’t wait to see what it’s like over the next few years as more phases of the project are complete; hotel tower, concert venue and more.”

Farnum also mentioned the Amazon fulfillment center which opened last year, adding 200 workers and the recent announcement FedEx plans to hire several hundred workers at a new distribution center being built along the city’s border with Washington County, Virginia.

The mayor termed that a “great example about what happens when localities work together.”

He also touted the city’s new elementary school being built near Interstate 81’s Exit 7, its first new school building in 50 years. It will give every child in the city the chance to attend a new school with state-of-the-art learning opportunities, regardless of a family’s income or what neighborhood they live in, Farnum said.

“We have a real need for housing.  I’m a real estate broker and many communities are dealing with this across the country,” Farnum said when listing city challenges. Nationally he said there are about five potential buyers for every home that goes on the market. “We need more housing. We need new housing, and we need housing that’s affordable.  This is something that we are really going to have to work on and stay on top of in the coming years.”

City leaders have worked hard to have a balanced operating budget, but one that provided pay increases for employees while continuing to pay down the city’s debt.

“So we have challenges, we have things we’ve accomplished, we have a lot going on: building new houses, new schools, opening up new businesses and welcoming new visitors,” Farnum said. “The state of our city is growing. And we are excited about where we are. We are hopeful about working together to continue this momentum and all that’s to come in the next few years in Bristol Virginia.”

During his remarks, Luttrell acknowledged the housing shortage and steps his council is taking to address it.

“Bristol Tennessee has been aggressive and forward-thinking in identifying ways to encourage new residential development in our community,” Luttrell said. “This includes the development of the residential water and sewer utility extension program, evaluation of zoning regulations and leveraging of tools such as tax increment financing to facilitate more challenged development projects.

“With three housing developments, Bristol Tennessee will add nearly 400 primarily single-family homes and a total investment of nearly $140 million,” he said.

On the economic development front, Luttrell highlighted the U.S. Antibiotics plant, which got new owners in Jackson Healthcare in 2021, keeping the only U.S. plant licensed to produce penicillin-based antibiotics commonly known as Amoxil and Augmentin.

“In May we were proud to announce an expansion of Tri-Cities Extrusion, at an investment of $30.8 million. They bring new jobs to their 120,000-square-foot facility currently under construction in the state-certified Bristol Business Park,” Luttrell said.

In June, Advanced Call Center Technologies established operations with 600 new jobs between Bristol and Kingsport, he said.

“Just a few weeks ago, a very, very exciting announcement came from Tennessee Hills Distillery. Not only will their headquarters be located in Bristol, but it will also be home to a distilling, packaging facility and museum dedicated to the history and relationships between Tennessee whiskey, NASCAR and music. Once completed, this 35,000-square-foot facility will be the fourth largest automated plant in the state of Tennessee.”

The new facility near Interstate 81’s Exit 74 is expected to create 45 new jobs and represents a $21 million investment.

“I feel confident in saying no community in our region is more dedicated to developing its future workforce than Bristol,” Luttrell said. “The majority of this success is owed to community partners like BTES and Bristol Tennessee school system.”

He said the new-this-fall interactive Viking Academy and the addition of industry partners to help educate Tennessee High students were two prime examples.

Luttrell also discussed the current, balanced city budget, which included raises for employees with no increase in property or other taxes or fees.

In closing, the longtime general manager of Bristol Baseball used an analogy from that sport.

“Not only is the timing right, we have the team and tools to keep hitting it out of the ballpark,” Luttrell said.

Asked afterward, Luttrell said the State of the Cities is good for the community. 

“I think it’s important we all get together from time to time. There is a lot of commonality of what people are doing in the communities, from the business perspective, from the cities perspective,” Luttrell said. “We all have our challenges, but at the end of the day, we all have families who live on both sides of the city. We see a lot of each other but getting everybody together is good.”

Farnum offered a similar appraisal.

“I think it’s great for business members and other members of the community to hear from people that are in office. Obviously myself and Mayor Luttrell spoke, but we had Congressman [Morgan] Griffith, state delegates, state senators, just to hear about what is going on and where we’re at as a community, what our challenges are and what we’re trying to do to get through them.”

There was no mention of the federal lawsuit Bristol Tennessee filed against its sister city this spring nor the embattled Bristol Virginia landfill, which prompted it. The two cities reached an agreement which includes Bristol Virginia working to eliminate odorous emissions and ultimately shuttering the facility.

Why didn’t the lawsuit, or the landfill come up?

“It shouldn’t. It just needs to get resolved. No one wanted to go down the path we took but it had to be done. Got to get it fixed,” Luttrell said.

“We have challenges and we know what our challenges are,” Farnum said. “It’s a long journey. We’ve taken some really positive steps forward, and we know we have more steps to take. It’s a big issue but we’ve got our engineers and Virginia DEQ are working on it to make sure we do it quickly and do it the right way.”

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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